The New York Times Magazine recently had a cover story about the “recovering” child star Daniel Radcliffe and the hurdles he has jumped to free himself of Harry Potter. His problems are those of any child star: What do you do with the rest of your life when you’ve started at the top and you have already had your fifteen minutes of fame? And how do you cope with no longer being the child star that brought you that fame?
But wait, it can be even worse. What do you do when you are a broke has-been at eight and all you have to show for it all is a lost childhood, no education and a broken family? This is where Peggy-Jean Montgomery, known as “Baby Peggy” to millions of fans worldwide, found herself in 1925 when her film career ended. Her first film had been made when she was only 18 months old and by five she was world famous. Then an argument between her manager-father and producer Sol Lesser ended her stardom as quickly as it had started and Peggy-Jean’s career in the movies was over. Moviemaking was the only life she had ever known and her childhood, as it is generally understood, was lost. What was she to do?
- There are three Baby Peggy silent short films as well as the full-length feature Captain January. Fans of the later child star Shirley Temple may be surprised to find out that Shirley's Captain January is a remake.
Baby Peggy: The Elephant in the Room tells the story of Peggy-Jean’s rise, fall and dogged recovery of her own life. The “elephant” in the title is the thing everyone can see, but no one talks about. In this case it is Baby Peggy’s stardom and the dysfunction it cause in her family. Her parents and older sister were totally dependent on this million-dollar-a-film child and the exploitation of the toddler was the elephant of which no one spoke.
Ironically her lost fame also becomes an impediment to her further work in Hollywood as it sets her apart from the other film hopefuls. No longer the character of Baby Peggy, she is just another face trying to get into the movies with the other extras, Peggy-Jean is still a star of sorts and they resent her for that. She tries writing for magazines, but the only thing people are interested in is Baby Peggy. In the end, Peggy-Jean will change her name in an attempt to bury Baby Peggy and become her own person.
Central to Baby Peggy is the exploitation of child actors in the silent films and by extension in the modern era films as well. Peggy-Jean worked hard for her money, but as a child she had neither the capacity nor the authority to keep her wealth. Fellow silent era child star Jackie Coogan lost his money as well and eventually sued his own parents in an attempt to get it back. In a time when child labor laws were still new, no one cared about what happened to the child actor’s earnings or their working conditions.
Also key to Baby Peggy, is Peggy-Jean’s post-film reinvention of herself into Diana Serra Carey. This is the “civilian” persona she will use for the rest of her adult life as a film historian, author and champion of child actor rights.
Despite not having any formal education Carey has made herself into an articulate author ( she’s written an autobiography and a book about Jackie Coogan ) speaker and activist. It is interesting to compare Peggy-Jean’s unearned and problematic fame as Baby Peggy with the hard-won yet relative obscurity of author/activist Diana Serra Carey. This says a lot about what our society values the most.
But it seems to me there is more than one elephant in this room because of the other things that are touched upon in the film but not addressed. For instance, what about all the children wannabes who never became child stars ? They end up with their own lost childhoods and are failures to boot.
Nor is there much said about how ephemeral movie stardom is. Peggy-Jean is selected as if by accident to be in the movies and her success is almost forced on her and her family. Then as quickly as it was bestowed, it’s taken away. So much for the work-ethic myth of meritocracy.
Furthermore, Peggy-Jean is able to trade on the Baby Peggy brand name and parley it into a successful, yet very demanding, Vaudeville career after she leaves Hollywood. (It is as if she was playing the clichéd stage-to-film story backwards.) For many, a career in Vaudeville would have been success enough.
In the end Vaudeville dies, the depression starts and after a failed attempt at ranching in Wyoming, the family finds itself back in Hollywood trying to get work in the movies. Peggy-Jean and her family actually do find work being film extras. Peggy-Jean even got a couple speaking parts but her comeback stalled out. I have to wonder how much weight the Baby Peggy brand carried in getting them all their jobs in Hollywood.
Still Baby Peggy: The Elephant in the Room is an admirable story of perseverance. Once you see it, you have to tip your hat to Diana Serra Carry for a job well done.
There is also a coda in Baby Peggy when we are told that Carey’s sister had late in life written an letter apologizing for herself and the rest of the family for not having said “thank you” to Peggy-Jean. I wonder how the eight-year old Peggy-Jean would have taken a thank-you-for-your-lost-childhood apology at the time.
Then I wonder if anyone ever apologized to Daniel Radcliffe?
As Joni Mitchell said, “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.” Childhood is like that.